Confidence in Professional Couples

It’s neither magic nor mystery. Confidence, properly understood, is a strength of character. It’s not inborn, it’s cultivated in the person within a social context. The first context is one’s family of origin. It’s further developed as life expands outside the home to school and the workplace. And then ultimately, it’s cultivated within the intimate dynamics of a healthy and adaptive couple’s relationship.

 As virtue, confidence involves both inner feelings and outer expressions of sympathy, empathy, humility, authenticity, and moral truth. These are social and emotional sensitivities and sensibilities that attune us to others and to our direct experience. Perhaps you wonder about the meaning of “moral truth” in this context. How does truth fit or apply in the context of other more affective terms?  

The truth I have in mind when I speak of moral truth is the felt truth through which we know and affirm values. It’s an intuitive way of knowing without which we would not be fully human. It’s the quiet center of an equanimous mind that is able to recognize what is good, right, proper, and appropriate. It helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in discursive reasoning. 

Strictly rational-logical thought is not sufficient for producing the quality of reasonableness we associate with wisdom and good judgment. So, the confidence I am addressing, runs deeper than the confidence I have in my technical skills (intellectual, social, or physical). We might better differentiate that meaning of confidence as competence, even a certain kind of self-efficacy.  

Confidence as Moral Substrate

In a committed couple’s relationship, what are we committed to? Of course, it’s the bond, the special “we” that we claim to be. We are committed to a relationship of care, mutual concern, and love. Care is an act. Mutual concern is an attitude. Love is a kind of self-surrender, or as Frost put it, “less than two but more than one.” Intimacy then is the art of preserving this attention to the two and the one


And what makes this discussion specific to professional couples? It’s not that these themes are exclusively relevant to them. They’re equally if differently relevant for all couples. The specific relevance for professional couples is perhaps more due to my experience, which is mostly with professionals.

In brief, confidence for in professional couple is distinctive in the occasions that call for its proper expression. It’s when I assert my aspirational energies of becoming (ambitions) while keeping fidelity to my duties of care for my partner and the life we share. For love to be abiding, it requires acts of care. 

For acts of care to be sufficient and appropriate they must be informed by a mindful state of mutual concern. These kinds of concern must bear the mark of the goals and ways of being that normatively define the life we share. And these considerations become complicated in the course of pursuing our careers and living our lives as professionals and as a family.  

Confidence, as a moral substrate, is the sense of assuredness we have that our roles, goals, and ways of being are healthy and adaptive – i.e., they are working for both and for all of us. When this confidence is shaken, we’ll know it first through our feelings: “Life is feeling too difficult, stressful, imbalanced.” Minor perturbations, of course, are natural. But when the troubled feelings persist and begin dividing us, we lose confidence. But when we face our situation and work through it, we regain confidence.  

Confidence is Moral, Not Moralistic

Being moralistic toward one another is being too ready to judge one another. It’s a negative judgment about the person, whereas being moral about our issues is to invoke a values-based mindset and an attitude of reflection. From this attitude, we first seek to notice the felt sources of pain, strain, and loss. We treat these noticed feelings (observations) as data that help us trace a path to the causes of pain. We see, in this way, paired with the issues, the opportunities for adaptive change. 

It can be particularly important to notice our individual fears and insecurities, the things we grasp most tightly for fear of losing. These feelings can grow as we become divided by changing circumstances and as we fail to check our alignment through the intimate dialogue that reinvigorates mutual concern. In this context, moral is the antithesis of moralistic. Moral is suspending the aggressive-defensive impulses that cause moralistic judgment. It’s the openness in our hearts for noticing what, not whom, is lacking.           

Getting Away and Coming Home

Like others, I find it invigorating to get away. But I find that, for me, getting away is also a different way of coming home. I was reminded of this as I was getting away while reading this morning. Let me explain.  

I’ll be going to England at the end of the month for a few days of professional development in South Yorkshire. I’ve been working hard with little time away from my professional practice except for the recent holiday season. So, I decided that I’d bookend the business purposes of my travel with a few days in London before and after. While in London, more specifically, Bloomsbury, I’ll very likely spend my time in used book stores, coffee shops, and my favorite tavern. All involving foot travel and taking the longer route to my destination.  

Away? Yes, I’ll be away, but I’ll also be coming home in the way Marcus Aurelius (Stoic philosopher, 121-180 AD) might have conceived it. I quote at length here from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest. (Book Four, Meditations)

I believe that part of the getting away that I seek in my travel to England involves being a stranger in a strange land. The people I meet and engage with meet me for the first time with no presuppositions, and I meet them as I choose to relate to them at the time, unencumbered by any expectations. And beyond the structured social context of my professional activities, lay wonderful anonymity. 

Being among people, many people, diverse peoples, there are no requirement to do much of anything beyond honoring the merest social norms in my social transactions. For me, there is “nowhere either more quiet or free” than that. Of course, I speak as an admittedly philosophically-oriented introvert. But I, like Marcus Aurelius and a later Scottish philosopher influenced by him, Adam Smith, do not spend my time away focused on myself or on self-interest. Sound paradoxical?  

I find meaning in that which lies beyond me, that to which I relate as a part, a part who finds fulfillment in being a part of that something beyond me. Yes, I refer to something spiritual, but not simply spirit. It’s the spirit of embodied human kind, living with other species in a natural world that predates and preceded me and that will exist after I’m gone. I enjoy being the speck of humanity that I am and being related to so much more that is beautiful and good.  

It is reuniting with that greater realm of spirit in my own quiet and peculiar ways that enables me to rejoin the whole of humanity and our busy, buzzing world with kindness, mindfulness, and a readiness to offer compassionate and practical care. Whatever virtue I bring to my work as the speck of humanity that I am, is greatly revitalized by coming home in this way – whether that involves a trip abroad or, what is more common, a brief respite and reading of poetry or philosophy.  

For reading in this way is not a private intellectual act, not at all. It is for me a communion with others who have come before, many of whom in their own ways have also sought a connection to the whole. So, reading is dialogue for me, and I am pleased to play a quieter role of listening, processing, and gratefully receiving the thoughts and ideas that others share. What a wonder life is! That we minded creatures live short lives but connect across time and create history.

The Interpersonal Circumplex

Graphical representations of human behavior, especially interpersonal behavior, can be very helpful in coaching and psychotherapy, within and outside the consultation room. They become an image in our mind that can help guide our actions. The graphic I share today is one that I use frequently with couples, but also in teams, The Interpersonal Circumplex.

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

What it Represents

The Interpersonal Circumplex (IC) represents expressed behavior in two-dimensional space. The vertical axis locates behavior on a dimension of dominant/submissive qualities, while the horizontal axis locates us on a dimension of friendly/hostile behavior.

The IC not only helps us differentiate the behavior we express towards others. It also indicates the response that we are likely to elicit from others. Dominance will "pull" for a submissive response, and vice versa, submissiveness pulls for dominant. But it works differently with friendly and hostile behavior. Friendly and hostile pull for like behavior.

Thus, we could characterize a proper assertive quality of behavior as falling within the upper right quadrant, to the friendly and respectful side from an affective standpoint, but from the dominant region in the top of the IC. The closer the behavior is to 12 o'clock while remaining in the friendly half of the IC, the more declarative or direct it is. If our tone takes on a harsher quality, we might describe it as sliding over to to the 10 or 11 o'clock position.

If we assert ourselves verbally and/or nonverbally from the dominant-hostile area, we can expect that we're likely to evoke a response from the hostile-submissive area. Similarly, if we assert a dominant-friendly tone, we will likely invite a friendly-submissive (agreeable) quality of response. The part of the IC we have not yet addressed is the Neutral box in the middle. Let's do that now.

Meeting in the Middle

I will often refer to the Neutral zone on the IC after I have intervened to arrest escalating patterns of conflict. As things heat up, I might first interrupt the back-and-forth with an observation of what I see happening: He/she is raising their voice, flushing with emotional intensity, and expressing a harsh or critical tone, and in response the other person is rolling his/her eyes or using other nonverbal behavior while remaining quiet.

By now, you should be able to plot these two sets of behavior, one in the hostile-dominant area and the other is in the hostile-submissive area. And as we all know from experience - yes, my wife and I can get stuck here too - this pattern of conflict can be difficult to halt once it's begun. And here is where the presence of a skilled third party and proper use of the Neutral zone can pay off.

As I interrupt and offer feedback on what I see, they pause the escalating pattern of conflict. We then notice, without placing blame, that this way of relating to one another is not working. In taking notice, we are moving toward the center of the IC. The grip and amplitude of chronic behavioral routines are weakening. We achieve a greater sense of calm and distance from the heat of battle - we're entering the Neutral zone.

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

Concluding Comments

Neither the Interpersonal Circumplex nor my use of it with couples is a silver bullet. But it's helpful in getting us all on the same page, understanding how things go off the rails, and what it feels like in our body and emotional reaction as the wheels begin to wobble. It's also helpful in prompting us to consider - once we're in the Neutral zone - what kinds of behavior could help us get back on track and communicate in the friendly side of the IC.

It's hard to make change in our habitual patterns of behavior without having some sense of what the alternative looks like in concrete behavioral terms. And it's helpful to have a simple message in mind - especially outside of therapy - that can invite us to "meet in the middle," in the Neutral zone in order to create a calming and reflective pause. Only then can we exercise freedom in choosing our behavior rather than acting on auto pilot.

Of course each partner in a couple brings his or her own tendencies of personality and interpersonal style to the relationship. Some help and some hinder. But when we keep our eye on the goal and the concrete behaviors that will realize the goal, we discover that we're more able to change than it may have seemed. Change is about learning. Confidence grows from practicing the new more adaptive behaviors we learn.

Anger as Avoidance

Anger. Most of us don’t like it. In fact, we often seek to deny we are experiencing or expressing it. But it’s a stubborn emotion and hard to conceal. Therefore, some may boldly pretend to be okay with their anger. But how could they really? After all, it is by definition “an intense emotional state induced by displeasure or ire” (Merriam-Webster). We feel distressed and agitated in such a state. It may cause us to act impulsively, in ways we later regret. And it’s generally something that is visible to others. How could we be okay with that?

Understanding Anger

There may be another sense in which we could be okay with our subjective experience of anger. In this sense, what we are okay with might be our relationship to our experience of anger, namely, that we see it for what it is. In seeing it for what it is, we are seeing its cause.

The cause is not the behavior (speech or action) of someone that we say “caused” us to become angry. At most, what someone might say or do is part of an overall situation (circumstances) that becomes a stimulus for our angry feelings.

As behavior, the words or actions of another person do not carry an inherent meaning that is causally connected to my angry reactions. The felt meaning of the words or actions for me are not fixed beforehand. We might argue that their socially prescribed meanings must include the potential for stimulating angry reactions in me. But it is I who must construe that meaning. Indeed, I may even need to attribute a malicious intent to the author of these words or acts to account for the full intensity of the anger I feel. My interpretations cause my feelings.

Why It’s Difficult to See the Cause

The anger-producing meaning I see in the words and acts of others’ is usually not something I’m aware of in the moment. In fact, the immediacy of reactive emotions like anger is attributable in part to their automaticity. For example, “When Judith excluded me from the to-list for the message about a meeting with ABC company, it was not a simple oversight; no, she was disrespecting me.” The offense is transformed from what may have been an administrative error, perhaps annoying, to act of intentional insult directed at me by Judith, which may further mean “she has no respect for me.” It’s now an assault on my character!

Indulging this anger sets up a negative mindset. Acting on it may be embarrassingly inappropriate and self-defeating. This interpretation is also avoidance-based. For what I’m truly troubled by are some long-standing vulnerabilities that cause me to over-interpret, misinterpret, and overreact to such experiences. If instead I was able to notice my anger-based reactions as they arise, and then invoke a reflective pause, which allows me to see what is making me angry (i.e., my own attributions of meaning and cause), I may see an approach strategy emerge.

From Avoidance to Approach

Using our example above, I might recognize, upon reflection, that the reason for Judith omitting me from the to-list is unclear. What may be very clear to me, however, is that I want to be in the meeting, and I have specific reasons for wanting to be included on such memos. Now I have a rational purpose and goal in mind for reaching out to Judith, and for approaching the issue. Of course, what I am approaching is more than my concerns about being omitted from a meeting invitation. I am also approaching my own insecurities and my vulnerabilities to indulge unnecessary anger rather than seeking what I want.

In this rather covert way our anger often conceals other primary emotions, which belies a problem of internal causes rather than external enemies. We tend to think of avoidance as it applies to an aversion to conflict or retreating in the face of a more dominant other. But avoiding the examination of our inner sources of anger-based reactions is equally if not more problematic. And shifting to an approach strategy that makes us conscious of these inner mind states produces healthy change. It weakens the old negative scripts that underlie our insecurities, and it builds more positive expectancies.

On Trusting Your Gut  

As a psychologist, I encounter two extremes in flawed judgment rather frequently, both of which can be exacerbated when we are operating under the accrued effects of stress, strain, and fatigue. On the one hand, we can act on impulse in ways that prove to be greatly out of proportion with the real demands or needs of the situation. On the other hand, we can find ourselves paralyzed or at least bogged down in making decisions as a state of mental confusion and fears of making a terrible mistake hold us in their grip. In either case, when this condition prevails for long, we can lose confidence in our instincts and intuitive sense. Even if we are in principle free to act, we don’t feel emotionally free or competent. 

There are times when I encourage my clients to trust their gut. What I usually mean to endorse when offering this advice is that they be more attentive to what they are experiencing. Are they feeling an aversion or an attraction? Is something compelling their belief, giving them confidence, or is that “something I know not what” engendering uncertainty or confusion? What I’m suggesting is that they give these feelings or impressions credence as data worth considering. So, the first meaning of “trusting your gut,” from my point of view, is to take these intuitive data of experience seriously. And when we do so, what else happens? We pause. For when we take the data of experience seriously it means we are not merely accepting them; rather, it’s that we’re considering them, giving them a fair hearing.    

Why does our intuition merit this attention and credence? First, because intuition is an immediate way of knowing that bypasses formal inferential processes and discursive reasoning. Intuition grasp a truth immediately. It may not be flawless. Indeed, we may later find that our intuitive grasp of something was based upon prevailing circumstances of the moment. Its virtue is that it’s fast and situated, qualities that limit its universality as truth and its practical relevance. But, if we’re careful to suspend judgment and action, recognizing that our intuitions are situated (in a specific context of time, place, perspective, and circumstances), we have good reason to welcome them as a valuable source of guidance in practical matters, matters requiring considered judgment and decision making.  

When we follow this approach to considering our intuitive experience, I believe we become wiser and less dogmatic. We stimulate a more mindful examination of a situation because being mindful concerns awareness of what is really present to our awareness and senses. Becoming skilled in the practice of invoking this brief reflective pause, we overcome the extremes in judgment. This pause asserts a critical function that averts a rush to judgment, but also a paralysis of confusion. In that respect, to trust our gut is to trust and verify the data of intuitive experience.